The iconography most readily associated with James Dean, that of the pseudo-delinquent teenager, Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray’s iconic Rebel Without A Cause (1955) has long since been substituted for the genuine flesh and blood. Dean…or rather…Jim, the conflicted, some would say ‘tortured’ teen, suffering through crippling bouts of internalized emotional angst, a dysfunctional family unit, and forced to succumb through peer pressure to the renegade (and then counterculture) dangerousness of living life on the edge: these attributes have since blurred the line between reality and fiction, between Jim and James, perhaps because Dean’s own presence and his premature death seem to completely lend themselves to the cinematic equivalent.
The contradiction that was James Dean has never been effectively analyzed – though many have tried. He was painfully shy; an introvert who found solace and escape in one of the most extroverted professions – acting; who exhibited woefully inept social skills yet managed to extol empathy from most of his co-stars; a troubled old soul in a young man’s body – deceptively attractive on the outside, yet strangely unsettling and volatile from within: in short, an enigma, curiosity and an oddity all rolled into one.
Whether these character traits became affected, particularly after Dean quickly realized he could manipulate them to suit his own purpose, remains open for discussion. There is little to doubt Dean’s on-screen presence as little more than transparencies of his own built-in tetchy uncertainty. He could be aloof, disagreeable, moody and brooding; never quite sure of himself and always critical and suspicious of the world around him. Arguably, Dean’s own trust factor with the human race had been severed at birth – or at least, after the death of his mother at the tender age of nine. His father abandoned him to a kindly aunt shortly thereafter. There were also rumors of sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved minister. Somehow, James Dean weathered this stormy upbringing. Early on, he learned resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. But he also fostered a level of mistrust by keeping things mostly to himself.
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that this most unlikely of stars rose through the ranks: in retrospect, a supernova burning out well before its time. Many have speculated what Dean’s career might have been after the release of George Steven’s Giant (1956). He might have gone on playing the social misfit. Arguably, as a reoccurring act, audiences would have inevitably tired of this too – as audiences do. But Dean had shown great promise in Giant; proof that he knew his craft apart from mere stereotype. The question therefore remains, ‘would Hollywood have allowed Dean the chance to eschew their dye-cast iconography?’ We’ll never know. For on September 30, 1955, Dean wrapped his silver Porche Spyder around a telephone poll on a lonely road in Cholame, California; depriving us of the promise, predictions and projections as to who and what the man might have become.
In hindsight, Rebel Without a Cause seems to foreshadow Dean’s demise; Nicholas Ray’s astute critique of troubled youth mixing its metaphors to arguably illuminate the back story behind the badness. Jim Stark is, in fact, not a bad guy. He is, regrettably, someone to whom trouble seems to readily find its home. Yet Jim is a tormented creature at best – lashing out at authority to compensate for the interminable lack of a strong male figure in his life; someone to guide him through the labyrinth of his teen years. This lack of a role model is something James Dean experienced in his life, and again – in retrospect – seems to be something the actor decidedly latched on to while crafting his performance.
At times, the parallels between James Dean and Jim Stark are frightfully clairvoyant, as when Jim raises angry hands in tear-stained anguish, shouting “You’re tearing me apart!” One can taste the bitter affliction in Dean’s confused rage. It is impossible to separate Dean from Jim when such scenes occur; the two singularly driven, cries unheard – or, at the very least, misunderstood and/or ignored by the status quo of milquetoast adults who threaten to push him over the edge. Yet Jim, like Dean, is grounded – at least, enough to recognize his own fallibility, collect his wits and make the valiant attempt to construct his own family unit out of a burgeoning romance with Judy (Natalie Wood) and friendship with John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo); the truly troubled and suicidal figure of the piece.
At the crux of Rebel Without a Cause there remains a fascinating character study because Nicholas Ray never treats his cast with the same antiseptic disdain usually afforded teens in movies throughout the 1950’s. These are not the doe-eyed, vacant-staring ‘yes’ group doing everything mum and dad tells them, or the clichéd ‘I am a bad person’ anti-social model of vice, destined to meet with a terrible end to satisfy the governing body of censorship before the final reel. None of the young people in Rebel Without a Cause fit either mold. In fact, the screenplay by Stewart Stern (based on a story by Nicholas Ray, adapted by Irving Schulman) is acutely aware that youth cannot be corralled into a ‘one size fits all’ model; the diversity never questioned where adults are concerned, but herein critiqued with subtle and astute observations paralleling the teen and adult worlds to, in fact, show the latter more severely troubled of its own choosing and/or design.
In this regard, Rebel Without a Cause is a marvelous social/psychological deconstruction of youth culture; the genuineness Ray applies to understanding and explaining why some ‘kids’ seem to defy ‘normalcy’ in favor of dangerous experimentation with their own lives yielding some very fine (and occasionally, heavy-handed) explanations along the way. ‘Rebel’ is, of course, a time capsule. And yet, despite the changing fascinations of youth through time – graduating from alcohol to drugs, fast cars to even faster sex, the traditions of counterculture yielding to the present teenage infatuations with harder drugs, angry music, tattoos and body piercing; Rebel Without A Cause holds up remarkably well as an indictment of how the perceived powerlessness of each new generation can manifest itself in arguably unhealthy ways of self-destruction masquerading as self-expression when the assimilating adult world seems unfair – or at least, unwilling – to tolerate anything less than enforcing its own high level of perfection upon the future race; arguably, a level it never attained for itself.
Because the will of the previous generation never seems to wane and is chronically being imposed on the next (we all want ‘the best’ for our offspring and sometimes fail to see how our best is irreconcilable with the hope and dreams of the advancing generation) Rebel Without a Cause arguably doesn’t date – at least, not in its premise and this – along with Dean’s tormented suffrage – has kept the movie fresh and perennially appealing. In adapting the property for the screen, director Nicholas Ray took at least part of the movie’s title from Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypno-analysis of a Criminal Psychopath. Thankfully, the movie did not reference Lindner’s book in any other way. Warner Bros. considered the movie a minor B-grade potboiler. That is, until Dean was suddenly catapulted into the stratosphere of overnight stardom immediately following the release of East of Eden (1955); a troubled production based on John Steinbeck’s novel.
Suddenly realizing that he had the hottest young male under contract, Jack Warner ordered Nicholas Ray’s B&W footage scrapped. ‘Rebel’ would be tricked out in Cinemascope and color; an A-list feature to perpetuate Dean’s box office pull. Over the years rumors have circulated that Marlon Brando was first considered for the lead. However, Brando’s 1947 screen test was not done for ‘Rebel’ despite the fact Brando performed a scene from its partially written screenplay. Given Dean’s breakout performance in East of Eden it remains highly unlikely that anyone except Dean was ever considered for the part.
As our story begins; Jim Stark, a senior at Dawson High School, is brought into a police station for being drunk and disorderly. Nicholas Ray had initially envisioned a complex prologue to this scene illustrating the reason for Jim’s behavior and also involving him in a theft of a toy monkey. Ultimately, only Dean’s drunken stumbling, his collapse in the middle of a quiet street in a residential neighborhood and his infatuation with this toy remain in the final edit, barely glimpsed beneath the movie’s opening credit sequence. At the station, Jim is attended to by Sgt. Ray Fremick (Ray Platt); who doles out equal portions of tough love and compassion as Jim’s flippancy mounts. Jim also briefly glimpses Judy sitting in a corner awaiting the arrival of her father (William Hopper).
It ought to have been a cute meet. But Jim has bigger problems to face; chiefly his own family barging in to straighten out his mess. Jim’s mother, Carol (Ann Doran) is a notorious shrew, backed by her even more shrill and uncompromising mother (Rochelle Hudson). Together, these two destructive and emasculating females have effectively cuckolded Jim’s father, Frank (Jim Backus) – devastatingly observed by Jim who has lost all respect for him. Fremick is empathetic toward Jim but informs him that he will not tolerate further infractions. Jim is advised to ‘go straight’ and seek out positive influences.
This is precisely what he does, discovering the unlikeliest companion the following day while on a school field trip at the Griffith Planetarium. Jim is interested in Judy, the moll of greaser/bad boy, Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen). Naturally, Buzz isn’t about to let Jim scope his lady and so a rivalry begins. At the same time, fifteen year old Plato latches onto Jim; partly out of genuine friendship, but also to procure a little bit of protection for himself against Buzz and his entourage.
Judy becomes erotically fascinated when Jim refuses to engage Buzz in a switchblade confrontation. Buzz punctures Jim’s tires to show he means business. But after a few taut moments of sparing the fight is broken up and Buzz devises a more perverse amusement to prove who will be the ‘bigger man’ on campus. He and Jim will race stolen cars to the edge of a seaside cliff under the cover of night. But the ‘chickie run’ goes horribly awry when Buzz’s sleeve gets tangled on the door handle. He loses control and drives over the edge to his death.
Buzz’s entourage disperse and Jim, guilt-ridden by this unexpected turn of events, tries to explain the situation to his parents. Their failure to comprehend what he is going through, but also their complete lack of faith in him, pushes Jim over the edge. He and his father get into a fight, broken up at the last possible moment by Mrs. Stark. Jim storms off in the direction of the police station, determined to do the right thing. Unfortunately for Jim, a few of Buzz’s gang, including Goon (Dennis Hopper) are waiting for him. The gang make chase but lose Jim under the cover of night, terrorizing Plato and Jim’s family instead in the hopes of scaring Jim into silence.
In the meantime, Jim, Plato and Judy hide out at an abandoned Gothic mansion, the trio forming their own family unit. Plato relates portions of his fractured childhood to Judy and Jim who have become his de facto mother and father. The pair realizes that Plato has some serious issues. But before any of them can be more fully explored, Buzz’s gang descends on the mansion. In a fit of panic, Plato shoots one of Buzz’s brood with his mother’s stolen revolver; his mental state devolving as he retreats to the observatory.
In response to the gun shots the police besiege the observatory with Jim and Judy in close pursuit. Jim goes inside and calms Plato down, encouraging him to do the right thing and surrender to the authorities. In the meantime, Jim quietly removes the bullets from Plato’s gun, thereby defusing the situation. Plato is afraid, but gradually reasons that Jim is right. Moreover, he implicitly looks up to Jim for advice and guidance. However, when Jim escorts Plato outside the police shine their spotlights on them; Plato becoming agitated again and charging the barricade.
The police open fire and kill Plato before Jim can alert them that his gun has no bullets. Because Plato was wearing Jim's bright red jacket at the time, the Starks mistakenly assume the police have gunned down Jim. Upon learning the truth, Mr. Stark dissolves into tears of gratitude, vowing to be a stronger father that Jim will be able to look up to and respect. Having reconciled their father/son differences Jim quietly introduces Judy to his parents.
Rebel Without a Cause is potent stuff. At the time it was also considered ground-breaking and original. Fueled by Dean’s mesmerizing central performance and a stellar supporting cast hand-picked by Nicholas Ray, ‘Rebel’ was a phenomenal smash hit; easily one of the biggest draws of the 1950’s with sellout tickets months in advance. Natalie Wood rewrote her squeaky clean on-screen persona with this movie. Initially, Ray did not want her, primarily because she had always played ‘too good to be true’ ingénues. However, just prior to casting his film Wood was involved in a car accident. Learning of the incident, in which the doctor in charge had grumbled about Wood being a ‘damn delinquent’ Ray decided to give Wood her chance. Today, it remains quite impossible to imagine anyone else doing it justice.
The third and final performance of merit belongs to Sal Mineo as the emotional paralytic; desperate for a family to call his own and, more directly, a father-figure to help ease and guide him into adulthood. This is a central theme running throughout Rebel Without a Cause; Nicholas Ray heavily criticizing – or at least critiquing – the implosion of patriarchal authority and its fallout. Jim’s dad is weak-kneed and rather feminized. At one point, Mr. Stark is even seen emerging from the kitchen wearing a rather floral and decidedly frilly apron. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Judy’s father (William Hopper); an ineffectual man, more concerned at how it will look that his decidedly adult daughter is desperate to be hugged and kissed by him than he is able to recognize the essential of daddy’s girl being able to show natural/healthy affections. But Mineo’s Plato has been robbed of a masculine influence altogether; Ray’s critique basically reinforcing the need for patriarchy; something 1960’s feminism would spend a decade debunking, deconstructing and condemning.
Ironically, all three of ‘Rebel’s’ leads ultimately met with untimely ends; Dean in the aforementioned car wreck; Natalie Wood, of an apparent accidental drowning off the Santa Catalina Island coast in 1981, and, Mineo preceding her by six years, the apparent victim of a random stabbing by a pizza delivery boy in a back alley. Today, Rebel Without a Cause remains one of the undisputed high water marks in American cinema; a crucial indictment of youth culture run amuck, but frequently blaming the adult world surrounding it that has unduly influenced the outcome of a generation it neither understands nor wishes to accept on its own terms. If anything, ‘Rebel’ illustrates the first sign of cracks in the idyllic Eisenhower era: suburbia at the cusp of a culture shock that would see its full flourish a decade later.
Rebel Without A Cause comes to Blu-ray with minor improvements over its DVD counterpart and one very curious misfire. For starters, I should point out that WB’s original DVD suffered from what is commonly referred to as the ‘Cinemascope mumps’ – a horizontal stretching of the image. When Warner Home Video reissued ‘Rebel’ in its deluxe 2-disc DVD the ‘mumps’ were corrected. But the color adopted a rather garish warmness that was not entirely in keeping with the original elements. In point of fact, the original DVD’s ‘cool’ patina was not accurate either. This newly minted Blu-ray seems to fall somewhere in between the aforementioned discs; neither as cool nor as warm. Flesh tones are the biggest improvement, looking much more natural, if occasionally slightly brownish. Once again, the predominant color is red and it positively glows in 1080p. ‘Rebel’ looks neither as sharp nor refined as I might have hoped. Cinemascope productions in general have fared better in their translation to hi-def. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the image, and yet nothing startling about it either. For those who do not own the 2-disc DVD this will be an obvious upgrade.
Warner’s DTS-HD 5.1 doesn’t distinguish itself either, except during the ‘chickie run’ when the sound of racing engines rattles the surround channels with robust intensity. Leonard Rosenman’s score also sounds marginally better than on the DVD, but again – not immediately or profoundly noticeable. Warner Home Video has imported all of the extras featured on their 2-disc DVD. Douglas L. Rathgeb’s audio commentary is informative and definitely worth a listen. We also get the hour long James Dean Remembered, the 40 min. Defiant Innocents and 10 scant minutes of Dennis Hopper reminiscing around the Warner back lot.
Warner Home Video pads out this disc with screen tests in color and B&W, plus brief interviews with Dean, Wood and Jim Backus. Regrettably, the audio for the few deleted scenes included herein does not survive. In keeping with their usual policy, no upgrade has been made on these archival elements. They’re all in 720i, some looking worse for the wear than others. Pity that. Warner’s digi-booklet is 46 pages of fun facts and photos. You know the drill – press junkets and promotional stills. We’ll take it. It’s all so slickly packaged.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)